The light my students shine
I view my job as a treasure that brings light to my life. I don’t want it to be a secret treasure, but when I boast about its riches, I often find myself on the defensive. My social world and my work world are on the two separate isles of the Jewish divide. (Has our community ever been more divided at a time when it more needed to be united?) I was raised a secular Jew, studied feminist theory at UCLA, and wrote my dissertation on Virginia Woolf. I’m a professor at Touro College Los Angeles, where most men wear kipas, married women wigs, and classes for men and women are scheduled on separate days.
When asked to describe what it’s like to teach young people who shiddah date in their late teens, get married in their early twenties, dress “frum,” walk to synagogue and keep strictly kosher, I’d like to throw open the doors to my Communications 101 class and let my students speak for themselves. (This is my bonus class, and also my favorite class — no papers to grade!)
I wish all could hear my students’ expository — “how to” speeches. As training, my class views samples on a DVD that Dr. Hamilton Gregory, author of our textbook, Public Speaking for College and Career, models with his classroom. One sample speech is on “How to Hide Your Valuables”; another is on “How to Avoid Food Poisoning”; a third is on “How to Handle Heat Waves.” On a rainy day in December, one of my students taught us how to make donuts. Here is how she began:
I’m sure you are all still rattled by the horrific murders of innocent Israelis recently reported in the media. What is the correct response when tragedy strikes? Let’s go back 2000 years to another turbulent time in our history — the time of Chanukah. Rav Shimshon Pincus says that that the power of this holiday is that we stayed loyal, when faced with tragedy and war, or with an enticing Greek culture. The miracle of Chanukah, of the oil staying lit for eight days happened because we lit the menorah knowing that there wasn’t enough oil, but trusting that Hashem will provide. To preserve our ancestors’ trust and to strengthen my loyalty and yours, today, we will all make oily food on Chanukah. Many of you already make latkes, but did you know that sufganyot are actually an older tradition? In Israel they are definitely the leading Chanukah treat, but in America, latkes outrun them. I say, ‘Let’s bring a little bit of Israel into our lives and enjoy the sufganyot experience!’”
After capturing our attention and persuading us that this subject is important, the speaker proceeded to do a cooking demonstration for the class. It culminated with our sampling the donuts she had baked the night before. They were delicious. She got an “A.” Her speech fulfilled the requirements set over two thousand years ago by Aristotle’s Rhetoric: it had ethos, pathos and logos. And a little something more. It targeted not just our intellect and our emotions, but also our souls.
You might think that this speech was a tough act to follow. Not necessarily. The young woman who spoke next that day taught us “How to Have Fun with Numbers.” She proved the truth of her equation: “Mathematics = Poetry.” To demonstrate the importance of her subject, she spoke about the significance of numerical precision in the Torah.
Because of their backgrounds, their Torah studies, their families, their histories, my students have rich resources at their disposal upon which they can draw, and they expect themselves and each other to access those resources. And they do. Easily. Naturally. They are capable of injecting the spiritual into the material; they know how to elevate the mundane. They are able to do so whether they teach each other how to bake brownies, or challah, or how to entertain guests, or how to pack a suitcase, or how to play the guitar. “We know that in the Beis Hamekdash music was a very serious thing; the Leviim had to know how to sing and play,” the guitar teacher argued. “Every morning during prayers we recite “the song at the sea,” and every Passover we read the “Song of Songs” – the ultimate love song between G- and the Jewish people.”
Sometimes the spiritual side is obvious, and other times it is subtle, but the “A” speeches in my class always have it. And though I am known as a tough grader, I give more “A’s” in my speech class than in the others – which is another reason, why Communication 101 is my favorite class.
The most challenging class I teach at TCLA is Comp 101. What to teach in this class and how to teach it has been confounding English Departments for almost half a century, since the Writing Crisis began following the sixties’ protest movements against grammar rules and grammar textbooks. My first teaching job was for “Writing Programs,” a newly established department at UCLA created in the 1980’s by my mentor, Dr. Richard Lanham. Still there today, it employs an army of Writing Specialists to address the ever growing writing and literacy crisis. English professors everywhere would prefer to avoid Freshman Comp like the plague, but it’s a requirement that supports us all! At TCLA, I’ve enjoyed teaching comp more than anywhere else. My writers have the two motivators without which, as Dr. Lanham argued in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, good writing is impossible: something to say and people to listen. Students write about subjects they care about for peers who relate.
Here is an example from a young woman writing about her hero — “a ninety year old man whose deep wrinkles only portray his wisdom”:
…My grandfather grew up in Kashan, Iran, and was the youngest in a family of five. When the Jews of Iran started being persecuted, he, my grandmother, and their six children fled to Los Angeles. … At Shabbat dinner, my grandfather makes it a priority to bring the family together, so we can relish each other’s stories. He loves watching his children and grandchildren fill up his quiet home with noise and laughter. He inspires us to love our culture and cherish our heritage. Many years ago, he brought back traditional gold bangles from Iran; he gave one to each of his granddaughters to remind them of where our family comes from. He told us that like us, the bracelets are not perfect, but each bump and curve is what makes them beautiful, just like this family.
The personal essay assignment offers glimpses into the writer’s life which often become an inspiration and an illumination to us all. Here is another passage written by a young man who travels many miles to get to our college:
In Laguna, come Saturday, everyone heads down PCH to the beach. Teens driving there in their convertibles with their surfboards might be surprised to see two religious Jews walking in full black and white garb and heading to shul. The sparkling blue ocean, with the crashing waves and palm tree studded beaches combine with the sounds of beautiful exotic sport cars racing down the hills. We stop intermittently to chat with the different locals in the neighborhood – Laguna people are very friendly. The congregation we belong to is a small eclectic gathering of adults, each with his or her unique story about how he or she ended up in Laguna. Because there were not many kids in shul, I was forced to be with adults, who in turn taught me their wise ways. I learned how to entertain and mingle with the many travelers that came through the city. I have been very lucky to meet many wise people who have taught me so many important life lessons.
I have many similarly beautiful examples of essays written by my students, essays that reveal their love of family, their appreciation for their parents and grandparents, and their deep love of Judaism. In both my speech and my comp classes, we listen to each other; sometimes we laugh and sometimes we even cry; all of us grow not just as writers and speakers but also as human beings.
The most stimulating class I teach at TCLA is World Lit. Here is where I get to teach the great books that drove me to get an English PhD in the first place. When we read, we bring our entire selves to the literature. At Touro, I allow myself the luxury of discussing literature not only in formal, academic terms, but also in life terms – in the context of the backgrounds and experiences that make our texts relevant to our lives. The first work we study is Sophocles’ Antigone, a Greek tragedy about a young woman who resisted tyranny and injustice. I invite my students to write their first essays comparing and contrasting Antigone to a similar figure from history, contemporary life, or their own families. Semester after semester, a few students write about brave relatives. Here’s one example that moved us deeply:
Christopher Reeve once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Antigone, Sophocles’ fictional heroine, risked her life to bury her brother, despite King Creon’s public announcement that “death is the penalty” for anyone who defies his decree to allow the body of “the traitor Polynices” to be “devoured by dogs and vultures.” Antigone bravely confronts her uncle, the King. “The law of a mere man cannot defy that of the immortal Gods. The law lives not only for today and yesterday, but forever.” Like Antigone, my grandmother, of blessed memory, stared death in the face and risked her life to save thousands of Jews, all of whom were entitled to the right of life. Born in Hungary, Grandmother was sent to Auschwitz, and from there to an ammunition factory where her job was to separate defective and functioning bullets into two separate barrels. Like Antigone, my grandmother was faced with a moral dilemma. Should she comply with an unjust edict or should she follow her conscience and risk torture and death?
Like some of my students’ parents and grandparents, I grew up in a repressive society during dark times. I was raised in communist Romania, under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. My father, Ion Eremia, now known as the “Romanian Solzhenitsyn,” was condemned to twenty-five years in prison for writing a political satire called Gulliver in the Land of Lies. My mother and her family lived through the Holocaust. Perhaps due to this traumatic background, I sometimes get anxious when I read the morning paper or listen to the news. But then I drive to Touro College and the clouds disperse. Seeing my students’ faces, listening to their voices assures me that these young people, like the generations before them, will continue to fulfill their mission and bring light to the world.
Irina Eremia Bragin is the chair of the English department at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir, Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story. You can read her op-ed on Esther Lowy here.